Wednesday, 13 December 2017

On the level: some thoughts on advancement

Recently, after eighty-odd hours of play spaced out over more than a year of real time, the Team Tsathogga PCs hit level 5. Partly because half the players were new to D&D when we started, I didn't use an experience point mechanic, going instead with a 'level when it makes sense' set-up; and, so far, it seems to have made sense approximately once every sixteen hours of actual play. (They started at level 0.) The time between level-ups has been getting longer, though, and I'm sure the average will increase the longer that the campaign continues.

Of all D&D's innovations, the levelling system is one of the oddest, and one of the most influential. Like most of the game's other features, its origins can be found in the historical wargames that D&D evolved from, which sometimes featured rules to model how a unit of troops might go from raw recruits to hardened veterans over the course of a long campaign: but D&D took this simple concept and stretched it so far that it became almost unrecognisable. A D&D character advancing from level 1 to level 20 isn't really like a wargame unit advancing from green to veteran: it's more like a unit starting out as a regular WWII infantryman and gradually evolving into a Sherman tank.

As far as I know, this advancement paradigm - in which characters begin as more-or-less ordinary people and gradually transform into mythic heroes - was a D&D innovation. It's since gone on to become deeply embedded in the structure of both fantasy RPGs and computer games, to the point where it's easy to overlook how utterly weird the idea actually is, especially in its more extreme implementations. It's clearly not rooted in any kind of realism, but it also doesn't appear in any of D&D's source material: Conan, Elric, Aragorn, et al are highly capable individuals right from the start of their respective careers, and become at best only slightly more powerful over the course of their adventures. Only with D&D does the idea arise that a character can effectively change genres, metamorphosing from a grubby desperado to Conan the Barbarian to Beowulf, if only they can manage to kill enough orcs and steal enough gold along the way.

The levelling system persists largely because it satisfies what, for many players, is clearly a very basic desire: the desire to see your numbers increase, power grow, and options multiply, to have your progress and achievements measured and quantified and validated in clear numerical terms. Given that people enjoy levelling, though, it's still worth asking just how many 'experience levels' a game actually needs. Wargames usually got by with just two or three, but D&D's innovation was to add many, many more. Most D&D editions and variants assume a 20-level structure, but it's often been noted that the higher levels tend to get very little actual play: the original B/X rules provided no rules for characters over level 14, which I believe was also the highest level reached by any character in Gygax's original campaign. Early D&D 'endgame' adventure modules, like Queen of the Demonweb Pits, Tomb of Horrors, Dragons of Triumph, and Temple of the Frog, were written for PCs of levels 10-14, which further reinforces the impression that level 14 was the highest level that real PCs were actually expected to reach. (Interestingly, most modern Pathfinder adventure paths top out at level 15 as well, which suggests that the level 14-15 ceiling has held remarkably constant across different eras and editions, even though rules for going much higher have been around for decades.) TSR was publishing ultra-high-level modules as early as 1985 - M1 Into the Maelstrom was for characters of levels 25-30! - but no-one ever seems to have liked them very much, and the question of how to write good adventures for very high-level characters never seems to have been adequately solved. Look at the early adventures that people still talk about today, and you'll find they're all written for level 1-14.

So there are strong grounds for suspecting that the top quarter of the standard 20-level progression has never seen much real use. But I think one can go further: in practise, even going much higher than level 10 seems to be pretty rare. In the original game, 'name level' - the point at which your character had 'made it', and could settle down as a lord or a high priest or an archmage somewhere, was level 9, 10, or 11, depending on your class. The highest level a PC has ever reached in one of my games was level 12. The 5th edition campaign books which WotC has been bringing out over the last few years are mostly designed to take a party from level 1 to level 10, which makes them very similar to the old B-X module range of 1978-87, which theoretically covered levels 1-14 but in practise very seldom went higher than 10. Some recent D&D spin-offs, such as The Black Hack, Shadow of the Demon Lord and 13th Age (I think), even set level 10 as the maximum level achievable.

So there seems to be a second milestone, which has again remained surprisingly consistent across eras and editions, which sees level 10 as the end-point of a 'normal' campaign: levels 11-15 are for those rare campaigns which go the extra mile, and levels 16+ are barely used at all. There's clearly a third milestone around level 6-7: the original campaign-in-a-module, X1 Isle of Dread, topped out at level 7, and level 6 is used as the maximum level by several D&D spin-off systems, including Dungeon Crawl Classics, Hulks and Horrors, and the E6 hack of D&D 3.5. Levels 1-7 is where the majority of famous adventure modules tend to cluster, and it also accounts for the vast majority of my own gaming experience, in which campaigns going beyond level 7 have been a distinct minority. Not coincidentally, the 1-7 level range - especially the level 3-6 sub-range - are also the ones which are most likely to give you the 'classic D&D experience', before the easy availability of game-changing magic like Raise Dead and Teleport starts pushing the game away the default fantasy adventure paradigm. The games I ran for my level 10-12 AD&D 2nd edition group back in the 1990s were great - but they were also weird as fuck, and bore very little resemblance to traditional D&D adventure scenarios, simply because by that stage the PCs had so many tools available to them for bypassing or trivialising the kind of obstacles which form the building-blocks of lower-level adventures. I'm sure they'd have become even stranger if we'd gone higher still.

The boundaries, then, have remained fairly constant: levels 1-7 for fairly grounded fantasy adventure, levels 8-11 for high-powered heroic fantasy, levels 12-15 for fantasy superheroes, and levels 16+ for a largely theoretical end-game which very few people actually use. But what hasn't remained constant is the rate of advancement. TSR edition D&D assumed you'd need to play for years to reach name level, whereas I seem to recall that 3rd edition was built around the assumption that you'd level about once every ten hours of play - more than twice as fast as seems to have been common in 'the old days'. Shadow of the Demon Lord goes further still, recommending a structure in which one session = one adventure = one level, which would mean characters advancing twice as fast again. Personally, I find the rapid levelling of more recent editions strains my credulity: even Team Tsathogga's advancement from level 0 to level 5 over the course of two years of game time seems rather on the fast side to me. But many adventures are clearly written with the assumption that no-one will be surprised if a band of peasant irregulars transform themselves into mighty wizards and warriors after a few orc-stabbing excursions into the woods. That's what 'experience' does to people, right?

So there are two independent variables, here: both how high levels go (either in the form of a hard limit, or just a vague shared assumption that the levelling rules probably won't actually be used beyond a certain point), and how quick or easy it is to move up the scale. In conjunction, they can be used to generate four very different environments:
  • Low level cap, slow advancement: The most 'realistic' option. People get more powerful, but not that much more powerful, and it takes ages. Everyone is vulnerable - no-one is ever so strong that they can afford to simply ignore low-level characters - but tearing down the powerful is much easier than rising to their level yourselves. Suitable for gritty or tragic games, in which destroying things (and people) is much easier than replacing them. This is the Lamentations of the Flame Princess model.
  • Low level cap, fast advancement: The most dynamic option. The power available is limited, but it comes quickly to those who seek it. The power gap between the weak and the strong is never all that big, and can be rapidly closed by someone sufficiently determined, meaning that it's never safe to rest on your laurels: there's always the risk of some ambitious young punk bursting up out of nowhere and tearing down all your achievements. Suitable for short, fast-moving games which feature rapid shifts in the status quo, especially as surviving characters will rapidly hit the level cap. This is the Shadow of the Demon Lord model.
  • High level cap, slow advancement: The most hierarchical option. There are people out there who are much, much more powerful than you are, and you will probably never be able to rise to their level, so you'll probably be spending your whole life living in the shadow of their power. Could lend itself to a revolutionary narrative about underdogs banding together to defeat the powerful through intelligence and guile, but much more likely to turn into a nightmare of being the archmage's errand boys, forever. This is the AD&D Forgotten Realms model, and it's my least favourite combination.
  • High level cap, fast advancement: The weirdest option. There are enormously powerful people out there... but, with enough luck and determination, anyone can join their ranks, and do so fast. Likely to resemble a superhero setting more than a traditional fantasy world, with ultra-powerful individuals just bursting out of nowhere all the damn time. ('Last year, I was just a lowly farm boy... but now I am Darkaxe, Slayer of Gods!') Both Pathfinder and D&D 4th edition lean heavily in this direction, in practise if not necessarily in theory.
My instincts have always led me towards the first of these options, with characters levelling quite slowly, but with very few high level NPCs around to make them feel small by comparison. (In a world where almost everyone is level 0 or level 1, a 3rd level D&D PC is badass.) But I think any of them could potentially be fun - as long as the group knows, in advance, what they're getting into, and prepares their expectations accordingly. It's when there's a mismatch between system and expectations - and especially when the PCs seem to be weirdly out-of-kilter with the assumptions governing the rest of the setting - that problems are likely to occur...


  1. Advancement rate doesn't have to be constant, of course. A model I quite like would be to start out at level 1 or 2 to tell the introduction to your story, hit level 3 relatively quickly, then spend a long while in the 3-5 or 3-6 region that I consider the "golden zone", and then go up to 6, 7 or even 8 over the last few sessions to deliver an epic finale.

    1. You'd be in good company. 5th edition really emphasises the idea of levels 1 and 2 as 'tutorial' levels, which are to be progressed through very quickly: the starter adventure in 'Curse of Strahd', which involves the PCs investigating a haunted house, has them going in at level 1, hitting level 2 when they go upstairs, and reaching level 3 when they get out alive, even though all those events have probably only taken a few hours worth of game time. And Gygax, of course, increasingly started his campaigns at level 3 rather than level 1 as time went on...

  2. First, please do not compare Q1 with M1. Spider Queen was released for AD&D whereas Maelstrom was a Master set adventure. BECMI had adventures that correspond to the levels of their set. Very different animals. A better example would be the H series (which included options for characters up to level 100).

    As for level advancement, I prefer either slow advancement for powerful characters or quick advancement for weaker ones. Which is probably why I can tolerate some of 5e's wierdness- the characters don't become setting wreckers at high level.

    1. My point is that the level 7 / level 10 / level 14 breakpoints appear to have remained weirdly stable across many different editions, even though they all have different advancement rules and different assumptions about how fast people will advance. B/X assumes that getting to level 14 will take years, whereas Pathfinder assumes it will take 6-12 months, but both of them gravitate towards levels 14-15 as a natural cut-off point. That's what interests me.

      And, yes, high level characters are much more disruptive in some systems than in others. That's why D&D4 could afford to go all the way up to level 30: its characters never gained the kind of world-altering powers which those levels brought with them in other editions. They just got better and better at stabbing people.

    2. Well, for both editions of AD&D, 14th level is when most casters gain access to 7th level spells. That means everyone but magic-users top out in their spell lists and MUs do not get 8th and 9th level spells.

      Which sucks as Polymorph Any Object is the best spell.

      For non spell casters, 14th and 15th level aren't significantly different with the exceptions for the assassin and monk. But those are weird classes that were tossed in the bin for 2e and came back differently in subsequent editions.

  3. I kinda feel like you need to know the power level of NPCs and the distribution there as a third axis, in order to really break this down into how a game feels. I don't think they naturally align as much as you seem to assume here. An OSR setting which aggressively cuts out powerful authority figures and a seemingly very similar, theoretically gritty setting which has clans of powerful NPCs could both fall into the low cap/slow advancement category but be very different experiences. (I admit I'm partially remembering minor trauma here from a MUD, which is not exactly equivalent, but I've also run into this a lot with a certain kind of WOD gamerunner).

    Like to ground this back in D&D-alike play, there's a big difference between running Lamentations on the edges of the early modern world, where eventually you can always run into the hammer of the State, and running a close derivative, like say Wolf-packs & Winter Snow, where power structures haven't been born yet and the animals don't level up or down with you.

    Call it relative power. Pathfinder seems to always want to minimize it, matchmaking you with exactly equivalent villains. The OSR likes messing around with this axis a lot. Some games in the Exalted/Godbound vein go all in on selling themselves as you being powerful all the time.

    (I feel like this comment got away from me, in a way that makes me understand why you didn't dig into this too much.)

    1. I'm slightly confused, here. By 'relative power', do you mean the level range which exists in the setting, or the level range which the PCs will actually experience? Because Pathfinder, for example, presents a world of *stuff* that goes all the way up to level 30 or thereabouts, and then proceeds to use a variety of ludicrous plot contrivances to ensure that PCs encounter it all in *exactly the right order*. So 'PC power relative to setting' and 'PC power relative to scenario' can be two very different things...

      But the broad point that just how big a fish a PC is at different levels can vary hugely even within settings with the same level-cap and progression speed paradigm is clearly correct. It's complicated...

  4. My recollection is that early D&D editions are balanced around the idea that different classes advance at different rates. How is advancing everyone together working out for you - do you have elves eclipsing thieves, or whatever the big discrepancies are?

    1. XP requirements double each level, so aside from elves, all that the differing XP requirements mean is that some PCs will sometimes be one level behind some others. (Elves will sometimes be two levels behind.) But for this game I've rewritten the classes to be notionally balanced against one another - although in practise the fighters are struggling, as being good at fighting doesn't count for much when the party never engages in anything resembling a fair fight...

  5. I share your preference for low caps and slow advancement. I'm not so concerned about realism or literary inspiration, here, but rather by what's fun to play. Let's be honest: D&D just doesn't scale well past a certain point. Magic is a big problem: in addition to the game-breaking spells, magical classes start to really leave other classes in the dust.

    The worst part is that high level trivialize all the cool and creepy things that scared your PC in the past. Now you just graduate into creatures with higher AC, HP and damage, and locks with higher DCs. Progress is just an illusion because the campaign has to scale with you.

    I think the best option at that point is to either (a) start a new campaign, or (b) start playing on the strategic level i.e. domain management. The latter option will either be feasible or not once you reach that stage, so it can happen organically.

    1. Magic-user vs. non-magic-user balance is more of an issue in some editions and game-styles than others - in a B/X megadungeon the fighters should stay relevant for a good long time, whereas in a D&D3 hexcrawl they might as well stop bothering to turn up at level 7, if not before.

      I agree about the whole 'outgrowing the world' issue, which has never really sat well with me, especially when coupled with the kind of advancement treadmill you describe. I think it's very telling that when people write very high level adventures, they usually just take something that could have been a mid-level adventure, swap out all the monsters for demons with zillions of hit points, come up with a rubbish excuse for why teleportation doesn't work in this location, and call it a day...